Prisoners’ religious objections to being touched by female guards at Guantanamo Bay are an attempt to stall proceedings in the death penalty trial of five men accused of a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, a U.S. military commander testified on Thursday.
Judge Army Colonel James Pohl issued a temporary no-touch order in January. The order followed complaints from Muslim detainees that physical contact with women outside their immediate families violated their religious beliefs.
“I think it’s based on an attempt to stall these proceedings,” said Army Colonel David Heath, commander of the guard force at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“So you give no validity at all … to religious principles with respect to this issue?” asked Jim Harrington, an attorney for Ramzi Bin al Shibh, a Yemeni accused of wiring money to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Heath said that before 2014, there had never been a complaint from any of the 107 Guantanamo detainees, all men, about being touched by female guards.
“We’re talking about a hand on an arm or shoulder,” said Heath, who was questioned for over three hours during the pre-trial hearing at Guantanamo Bay.
The five suspects have faced charges since 2008 for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which hijacked airliners crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 people.
The issue over touching arose in October 2014 when a female guard tried to shackle Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, an inmate who is accused of leading attacks in Afghanistan. He refused to be touched and male soldiers shackled him and moved him back to his cell.
The men, charged with offenses that include helping with training or wiring money to orchestrate the attacks, want Pohl to make permanent his interim order banning female guards from touching the detainees. He could rule on the order this week.
In October, Defense Secretary Ash Carter described the order as “outrageous” during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Also at Thursday’s hearing, an attorney for one of the defendants, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a Saudi man, said charges against his client should be dropped because President Barack Obama and several other high-ranking U.S. officials had exerted too much influence by expressing an opinion the men were guilty.
The hearing was monitored by closed-circuit television from a media center at Fort Meade, outside Washington.